Wordy and literate storyteller John Darnielle (and his Mountain Goats) has this time turned his attention to goth, both the music and the movement. Keenly eyed observations on those bands that didn't quite make it or what it meant to be goth all delivered nasally over Mountain Goats regular brand of strum-a-long folk -- or not, in this case, since they've ditched the guitars in favour of a synth-athon.
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My favourite Mountain Goats records at this point are the books John Darnielle has been writing on the side. As a novelist, Darnielle is everything he is in song: his paragraphs in ‘Wolf In White Van’ and ‘Universal Harvester’ break like his verses, drama shot through calm so the reader can choose their own adventure of emotion. At times, these little, throwaway mantras will simply be more atmosphere to soak up; at others, Darnielle’s words will sting without ever pointing you in the direction of being stung.
‘Goths’, with its soft rock arrangements and occasional jazz curveballs, does a similar thing, riffing off its nonchalant atmosphere to deliver memories of heartbreak. Its arrangements are the most sombre when its lyrics feel like small talk, or a joke, or a mere cursory glance at something serious: I’ve been getting feelings off of Darnielle falsetto crooning “I’m pretty hardcore, but I’m not that hardcore” for a couple weeks now. This record, like the best Mountain Goats records, builds setting and narrative in its lyrics and then delivers a gut-punch of a lyric from simply existing in that world.
Paired with ‘Beat the Champ’, a record about the domestic afterlives of once glorified wrestlers, ‘Goths’ is another sombre but ultimately positive meditation on what it’s like to get out of a scene that could never fully take care of you -- the rockers and their adjacents in this record go on to live life largely as they left it before its dizzying heights, and we view it in what always feels like the past tense. Our Sister of Mercy’s Andrew Eldritch returns to the dusty nothings and distant friends of Leeds on, well, “Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back to Leeds”; numerous goth bands get namechecked with a sympathetic shrug for their lack of success on “Abandoned Flesh” and the lyrics to “Paid In Cocaine” offers a glance at those withered by their party-proud peak. It’s a record with a soft spot for the dejected; its devotion to major keys and playful fusion instrumentation reassures us they will be okay, even if they can’t follow their dreams.
The lack of acoustic guitar on this record is likely to take a Mountain Goat fan or two aback -- and its treatises on post-punk goths told in an entirely antithetical genre high on brass might, too -- but it ultimately crests on the same constant of Darnielle’s songwriting. These soft sounds backdrop an empathetic case study that only he could relate, one that suggests that a lack of success never means you didn't live the truth. On "Abandoned Flesh", an ode to Gene Loves Jezebel, he sings "The world will never know or understand / the suffocated splendor of the once and future goth band", as if admitting defeat -- but the way he shakes his head through that lyric suggests goth life after goth death.
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